Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Note on Triple O’s Rhetoric of Objects

The rhetoric of object-oriented ontology was a matter of interest some weeks ago, and it remains so for me.

In particular, there is a rather traditional sort of ontology, associated with the Great Chain of Being, in which beings, objects, or substances, whatever term you prefer, are arranged in a scale, or ladder, from low to high. At the top one has God, and at the bottom, something like brute matter, perhaps atoms, while in between one finds the rest of the beings, kumquats, seraphim and the rest. Those things higher on the chain have more being than those low. It is thus a very different scheme from those offered under the rubric of object-oriented ontology and its conceptual fellows.

The Great Chain of Grammar

I’m interested in this great chain because a portion of it is written into our grammar, from which it erupts into the rhetorical practices of OOO. Consider this passage in which Levi Bryant comments on an account of soccer in which Michel Serres would have the ball in mastery over the players:
Second, as Serres’ example of the soccer ball as a subject where humans are quasi-objects for it–where the soccer ball is the seat of agency and the players are patients; in part, anyway–suggests, we need to develop an adequate notion of agency. What sorts of agency are there? What agency do we have?
That word “patients”, where did it come from? Bryant is certainly not suggesting that, all of a sudden, players become the objects of medical attention. That does happen, but that’s not what’s going on here. The word comes from linguistics, specifically, case grammar, where patient is a specific role that an object can play with respect to a verb, with agent, instrument, and object being other available roles. For example:
(1) John hit Jack with a stick.
(2) Jack was hit by John.
(3) John hit the wall.
In (1) John is playing the agent role, Jack the patient, and stick the instrument. In (2) John and Jack are playing the same roles as in (1), though the form of the sentence is different. In (3) John is the agent while wall is the object. Patients are generally construed as animate while objects may be inanimate.

Grammar thus places restrictions on what types of things can fill the various slots. The following sentences violate those restrictions:
(4) The stick hit Jack with a kumquat.
(5) The stick drank too much ice water.
(6) The stick dreamed of colorless green ideas.
In (4) hit is a transitive verb in active voice and thus requires something in the agent role. That something must be animate. Sticks are not animate and so the usage is ungrammatical. In (5) drink requires an animate agent, so stick does not qualify. Not only must the agent be animate, but in most usages it must also be an animal or a human. Plants do not drink, though the assertion can sometimes be made without confusion. But sticks, stones, and bones, they never drink. Nor do sticks dream. People can dream, perhaps animals, but plants, sticks, stones, and bones do not dream. Nor, for that matter, does it make much sense to assert that ideas are green, or any other color.

As I said, such preferences—linguists sometimes talk of selection restrictions—are built into grammar. And they clearly follow the ordering of a Great Chain ontology, where inanimate objects are subject to the most stringent restrictions while human beings are the least restricted, with plants and animals being in between. Plants, animals, and humans thus can live, grow, and die, but inanimate objects cannot. Animals and humans the locomote, desire, and sense, while plants and animate objects cannot. Only humans can think, dream, speak, and so forth. Unless, of course, one wishes to speak metaphorically.

However, things ‘higher’ in the chain can always play the least restricted roles. Thus, while humans, but not pebbles, can think, humans can be pounded into the dust as can pebbles. This is because the only requirement for being pounded into the dust is that something be a solid object, a requirement that humans meet. The violence of pounding someone into the dust is not only physical, it is also ethical as it is generally considered wrong to REDUCE a human being to the status of a mere object.

This is where things get interesting.

Rhetorical Consequences and Possibilities

When OOOists assert that all objects are equal in being they move to the top of that ontology that’s embedded in grammar. As far as (mere) being is concerned, granite boulders, irises, eels, and humans are on the same footing and so OOOists want the freedom/ability to use the same language with each. At the same time they will, when necessary, deny that they are asserting that all things have the same things and capacities. They don’t. They just have the same being.

Language, alas, makes it difficult to separate being from capacity. The Great Chain is built-in to the grammar. We can’t eradicate it. Whenever we speak, we must drag it along for the ride.

And, one rather suspects, the OOOists rather like the rhetorical possibilities inherent in that difficulty. It’s rather fun, and provocative, to consider the possibility that shard of glass can do something a bit like thinking, but not fully, just a bit. It’s fun to imagine the existence of shard-thoughts, which are not real thoughts like ours, but shards have them nonetheless as their being is as Real as is ours. Shard-thoughts, shard-desires, shard-motives, shard-duties. All are like human-thoughts, desires, motives, and duties, sorta’, but as metaphysically appropriate to shards.

And so we’ve had this flap over ethics. On the one hand: Does ontology entail ethics? If not, is that bad? But also: can any object whatsoever have an ethics? Hence Ian Bogost’s witty post, The Legume, the Piston, and the Bearded Man, which has passages such as this:
No matter what we may feel about eating or abstaining from meat, appeals to feeling and suffering exemplify the correlationist conceit: the assumption that the rights any thing should have are the same ones we believe we should have; that living things more like us are more important than those less like us; and that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy. These are understandable biases for we humans. We are mortal and fragile in specific ways, and we worry about them.

Things become more difficult when we move beyond the animate, and into the great outdoors, toward an ethics of objects.
And, just a bit later, this:
By contrast, we don't consider the ethics of the spark plug, the piston, the fuel injector, or the gasoline. Does the engine have a moral imperative to explode distilled petroleums? Does it do violence upon them? Does it instead express ardor, the loving heat of friendship or passion?
What’s going on here? Still further:
When we ask after the ethics of objects, we are really asking if moral qualities exist as sensual qualities. I'll float a categorical response: no. When the vegan eats the tofu, she bathes in its moisture, its blandness, its suppleness, its vegetality. Yet, the soy does not bathe in her veganism. Through its sensual properties, she construct a caricature of the soy, which does more than render it nutritive or gratifying; it also renders it moral. It is what Emmanuel Levinas calls enjoyment, an egoistic process for which he favors the metaphor of eating: we eat the other in order to make it the same.
Notice that categorical response up there: “no”. Which I take it implies that the ethnical capacities of non-humans are not the same as those of humans. In fact, it most emphatically implies that. But Bogost clearly enjoys playing with the idea that nonhumans do have (something like) ethical capacities. Indeed, they MUST have them. So he continues:
But what of the things themselves? Does the tofu muster moral practice when slithering gently in the water of its plastic container? Does the piston when compressing air and petrol against the walls of its cylinder? Does the snowblower when its auger pulls snow from the ground and discharges it out a chute? Perhaps, although if any do, they do so by means of a code irrevocably decoupled from the material acts they commit. The ethics of the spark plug are no more clear to us than would be those of the vegan to the soybean plant, even as the former strips and devours its salted, boiled babies in a tasty appetizer of edamame. Worse yet, there might be multiple, conflicting theories of soybean ethics, lest one assume that the noble legume is any less capable of philosophical intricacy than are bearded men.
What keeps these wheels spinning?

This is great fun, no doubt of that. But is this serious thinking? Is it even serious provocation? Once the rhetorical shock has dissipated, is there anything left? Is such thought but the contrails of B-2 Spirit bombers passed?

We tend to feel superior to those Medieval schoolmen who, according to intellectual lore, seriously debated the capacity of a pinhead to support dancing angels. Do we now add to that an inquiry into just what the pinhead thinks and feels about the dance steps being enacted upon it? For that matter, what’s the pinhead think about being turned into an object of learned consideration and contemplation by philosophers, mavens, and jackdaws?

The mind boggles.


  1. Your quotations from Bogost are quite alarming for a number of reasons
    1) they show that despite elaborating a philosophy "beyond" the linguistic turn OOOxians cannot transgress the dictates of grammar for no good reason
    2) Bogost, a card-carrying OOOxian, has no idea of the difference between correlationism and ordinary anthropocentrism. When he inveighs against the "correlationist conceit", defining it as: "the assumption that the rights any thing should have are the same ones we believe we should have; that living things more like us are more important than those less like us; and that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy", there is no question of only having access to a correlation between mind and world. If I prefer to eat a carrot over eating a rabbit on the grounds that the rabbit feels pain when it is killed, is sentient and deserves our respect, I am not claiming that the rabbit, or even its pain, exists only in correlation with my, or humanity's, mental states. It may be human-centric narcissism or unreflective projection, but it is not correlationism at all.
    3) Bogost has no idea of the difference between breaking out of correlationism and transferring anthropomorphic predicates to things. Wondering about the ethics of the spark plug is an empty rhetorical flourish as no philosophical work has been done on the concept of ethics and of its possible application in a case such as this.
    4) Once again you have given me a confirming example of my thesis that OOOxians suffer from concept-blindness. Bogost has no idea of what is a case of correlationism or a case of breaking out of it. More generally, he confuses grammatical pseudo-transgression with conceptual innovation or provocation.

    1. It seems to me that, in the world of Continental philosophy, the great provocations of the 20th century came from Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, and perhaps others of that generation. The OOOians are all too young to have lived through those discussions. For them, those discussions are settled matters of the past. So perhaps they're looking to kick up a little dust, perhaps even desperate to do so?